Fiction Pick of the Week: "Railroad Blues"
Small town loneliness, memories, and mistakes.
Small town loneliness, memories, and mistakes.
A father tries to bond with his transgender child.
A man cares for his ex's mentally unstable brother.
Hallucinations and peculiar memories of a dead spouse.
Dead bodies and small town sexual identity.
The writer returns to his remote North Dakota hometown’s high school, then isolated with a graduating class of only 28, now even smaller but connected by the internet.
Religion, high school football, and racial problems in small town America.
There’s a new endangered species in rural America: veterinarians.
A trip to the country turns into nightmare beset by mysterious creatures and body transformations.
"When we went over to look at the creature, it was mostly flattened. It looked like a crow, except the feathers had fallen off its back. Underneath, the flesh was scaly and pink. The exposed skin was split in half by a row of translucent spikes. The spikes were moving slightly, pointing first in this direction, then in that. The smell made me wrinkle my nose. It was an oddly sweet smell to find outdoors, like an open vat of lollipop flavoring."
The mysteries and dreams of life and rural living.
"I leaned back into my chair. I thought of the abandoned houses, of the wasteland I could no longer see from the window of the plane because we were too far up. It occurred to me that somewhere along the line I had to have chosen to nestle in that ruin, whether to perpetuate my wounds of abandonment, or to deal with them once and for all. Then I thought of cows pasturing in the fields alongside highways. Then my neighbor pointed out the page in the magazine he was laughing about."
A tornado causes physical and psychological turmoil in a religious community.
"The next morning, I ran through the streets in my pajamas, screaming for somebody, anybody. I finally found Daddy standing at the edge of the detention pond behind the church. It was full of all sorts of stuff: cars, tree trunks, gas grills, hot water heaters, and two bodies. The bodies were naked, and I didn’t recognize them at first. But then I saw their faces. It was Brother Mack and the second Hillyer girl. They were facing each other, impaled by a metal post from the chain link fence, pushed together like two pieces of chicken on a kebab."
A story of the very complicated demographics of small-town life.
"But I’m no country bumpkin, let me tell you. Cultural institutions in Spencer include a glass studio, a community theater, and a bona fide art school, which relocated in 2008 from the city of Detroit, which as you might have guessed, did not make the cut for Relocate-America.com’s Top 100 Places to Live for 2007. Hence, the art school moving to Spencer. If you’re wondering how a city gets on the list, it says on Relocate-America.com’s website that theirs is the “only list that is determined by statistics and feedback of the people who live, work & play in these communities.” So basically, they take in consideration both fact and opinion and process them in a secret formula to produce a totally non-biased ranking based not just on numbers but also on the enthusiasm of Real People Who Definitely Live There. This explains why we are only three slots down from San Francisco, California on the rankings, because we are definitely on par with a major metropolitan, ocean-bordering melting pot with a majority-minority population of close to a million people where it Doesn’t Snow Ever; anyone who’s ever been to Spencer, Iowa can attest to that."
A horrifying animal attack turns into an examination of rural life.
"Admit it. You want to jump to the part about Bubba tearing into Child, who still has no identifiable name. This story isn't about Child; it's about the town and its assumptions. But since I cannot narrate the story of the assuming town without touching on what it is they assumed upon, I will tell you the parts of the Bubba/Child story that will elucidate they and their assumings."
A series of instructions for a woman in a small town.
"Purport, coyly, that you are dating a tall pile of driftwood arranged in an aesthetically pleasing way, and let’s say this wooden statue’s name is Chad and that he is generally a little slow on the uptake. Say Chad is like a Nordic carving of a real person in that he is extremely beige, even his hair, and he can go for a long time without blinking or saying anything of substance. Say you might as well be dating a Hummel, except Chad is more durable."
Baby Girl and Perry, two small town partners in crime; from Hunter's forthcoming debut novel.
"The Estates was a ritzy-ass neighborhood with a gate at the front and open sidewalks on either side. Perry and Baby Girl had hit the neighborhood before, strolled right in. Those sidewalks were an in- vitation: Come on in, and steal some stuff while you’re at it. Perry had started to think if rich people weren’t afraid of their stuff being taken, they wouldn’t feel so rich."
A widower takes his children to visit relatives under vague, suspicious circumstances.
"One day he said he was taking us on a trip to meet his people in Missouri, relatives we hadn’t known existed. They were farmers of German descent, with exotic-sounding names like Fritzi and Helga and Smit. We loaded up the car and just drove, right out into the country. If our mother had been alive, she’d pack a cooler full of bologna sandwiches and Mars bars, but there was none of that. The windows were down and hot bursts of wind boxed our cheeks and made the Cubs cap on our father’s head twitch."
A tale of small town love and loss; a summer tale for the last official weekend of summer.
"Do you love her? Those things are kind of hard to know. For me, anyway. My mom died when I was four and my dad never met anyone else, at least, not anyone that made him want to try again. I never got to watch him love, and so it feels like that part of me is broken. I know how to ride a bike, how to fry an egg sunnyside-up, how to thread a worm on a hook, but I don’t know when someone says I love you if they mean it or if they just want me to lie back in the grass and hike up my skirt."
Two shorts about cowboys, love, and unhappiness.
"We’d been too young, too passionate. We lived wearing blinders: we only saw each other. After pay days, we had nothin’ left but a few dollars for a six pack and a pack of smokes, but that’s all we needed. We’d sit on the back porch, drinking and smoking, watching evening fall. And once it got dark, we’d go inside, make love, have a drink and another smoke, and then make love again."
"I drove past Low’s house, saw his truck out front. I didn’t slow down. My body ached, I prayed for rain—a purple-blue tempest, lightning slicing sky."
Sex, potential violence, and human awkardness convene on an isolated shore.
"A slight breeze brings slight relief from the heat and a taste of the saltwater lapping against the hard sand. He’s been here many times. Though he has no desire to kill a bird, he loves this place, this lonely beach at the edge of this lonely lake too shallow for boats and too lifeless to attract fishermen. He loves the sand bugs and the sharp edges of the sand grass. Especially he loves the deep shade beneath the willow trees, and the sound of the cicadas’ music in the sun."
Tender, sad interactions between old friends; an excerpt from Worthington's forthcoming book from Civil Coping Mechanisms.
"He was looking at the television across from him, above and between two of the tables. I was looking at the television behind the bartender, in front of the kitchen. It was the first time we had seen each other in two years. We didn’t have anything in common to talk about except for the Browns. I didn’t even really care about the Browns anymore. I glanced over at him, and he looked down at his drink, picked it up, took a sip. He returned his gaze to the screen. I often feel violently angry when people are not able to communicate effectively with me, but, at that moment, I didn’t. I took a sip of my drink."
A study in building spaceships.
"Mostly, the spaceship builders did not come out of their trailers or houses, though our local guides claimed they didn't mind the occasional tour. They were so serious they could not see that others might laugh. Some of their grounds looked measured and neat; some were spilling over or scraped to dust. Most were single, a few married, some widowed or divorced. The married ones interested us most—what sorts of agreements had they come to? were the ships built for two?"
A small town paramedic reflects on her troubled yet protective uncle.
"Inside, Lou washed our faces and made us some lemonade. I changed my pants. He turned on the radio in the kitchen. He made us peanut butter and crackers. He dealt out hands of Crazy-Eights and told us a story of Mom learning to milk a cow. Not once did he look out the window. After an hour, Lou picked up the phone and called the coroner."
Colliding Michigan demographics; the novelty of AOL chat rooms.
"So me and Little Tom were sitting on the couch watching television, not so much in the mood to do anything else having been witness to the worst kind of execution.'Wish you had a computer,' I said finally. 'AOL is so great. You know about it?' Pause. 'You have AOL down there?'"
A father struggles after a layoff.
"Now John was paralyzed. For three weeks he’d been on the couch, drinking whiskey out of a dirty glass, or stretching out and turning away from the TV, burying his face in the back cushions and trying to coax a nap out of his subconscious. All the while he felt consumed by a quickening in his heartbeat, or he’d stare at his hands until he was sure that he saw his pinky finger start to shake. He breathed in on a count of four, held it for a count of four, out for a count of four, hold for a count of four. During one of the safety trainings at the mill they’d told the workers that it was a way to regulate your heartbeat during times of shock."
Abandoned children make a home in a hollowed-out school bus.
"The dead squirrel lies shocked on the floor, spun down by lightning last night, claw-up and crusted. The little girl uses a knife to split the thing down its belly and starts peeling. Lucky, she says to her brother. You’re lucky I’ll share with you. Aunt Helen brushes their hair, one by one, picks insects and sticker vine from their legs. A night like all nights: She leaves through the front door without saying goodbye. The children blow kisses. They pray for their mother. They sleep."